Friday, June 19, 2009

Bienvenidos a Ecuador!

The passengers on the plane applaud as the tires make contact with the tarmac after we skim the rooftops of central Quito during our approach to this Andean city. Leaving the customs area we’re excitedly greeted by Julie’s cousin Ryan and his girlfriend Nuala – our hosts for the next few weeks here in Ecuador. A short cab ride and we were at their apartment, naturally decorated in style for them to entertain foreign dignitaries as part of Ryan’s role with the Canadian Embassy here in Quito.

Julie & I spent a couple days getting used to the altitude (~2900m above sea level) helped along by a couple Diamox pills, but either way it feels like you cannot get a full breath of air.  We did manage to get outside the second day and walk around the large Parque de Carolina and play some frisbee without getting too winded.

Both of us were surprised to see the number of American chains here: Papa Johns pizza, Tony Roma’s, TGI Fridays, Chili’s, and all of the clothing store brands in the big [expensive] mall near their place.

First thing we learned about Ecuador is its wacky monetary policy. They dollarized a while back and now use the US$. Nothing weird there until you try to buy a Coke with a $10 bill and the store clerk looks at you blankly and asks if you have anything smaller, or just plain refuses to sell to you because they can’t produce change. They seriously have a lack of physical money in this country. And had we known in advance [Ryan!] we probably wouldn’t have brought in a stack of hundreds, instead cashing them in for rolls of quarters in Miami.

The second thing we learned is they like cheese. Cheese on everything and in everything. Ecuador the home of chocolate, potatoes and bananas, and cheese will go in all three of these. Blocks of chocolate are melted and then blended with small pieces of cheese for a chocolate con queso. Potatoes are mashed and mixed with cheese and fried as pancakes to form llapingachos. Finally, green plantains are sliced down the center, filled with cheese and then grilled to become platanos con queso.  The cheese that most locals seek out is unpasteurized cheese packaged in its own brine. It tastes fine, sort of like dry cottage cheese, but I cannot tell the difference between the flavours of it.

The third thing we learned is that there’s way too much to see and do here. We failed miserably at doing any research before landing here, but fortunately Ryan & Nuala (Nuala mostly) have put together a sightseeing binder after having so many visitors since they’ve been here.  After hashing and rehashing a timetable, Julie & I’ve decided to extend our stay by one week. It cost us the amount of one of our flights down here to make the change, but it will permit us to see most everything and do a little bit of travelling with Ryan & Nuala.

Julie’s Spanish language skills are coming back nicely, so she’s handling the dialogue although I think I’m better on knowing the numbers, just like Ryan can conduct full-on business conversations but Nuala’s better at simple words like “fork” (it’s a tenador).

Anyhow, Ryan & Nuala have set us up very comfortably in their apartment here in Quito. It’s going to prove to be quite handy to be able to leave behind some of our big bags while we go off on small trips around the country. The best perk is their little (quite little, literally) cleaning lady Carmen who tidies our room and does [some of] our laundry in between escapades. We’re so spoiled!

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